Exploring the Language of Shakespeare
Tuesday, 06 October 2015
English Language expert, Professor David Crystal entertained a large audience at an evening lecture entitled “Exploring Shakespeare’s Language” delivered in the Great Hall of Bolton School Girls’ Division.
Professor Crystal emphasised that there are many misconceptions about Shakespeare and his language. Firstly, he was very much “theatre” not “literature” and his plays were definitely not for the educated and elite of society as most people could not read at the time. The professor was pleased that a large number of the audience had visited The Globe in London, as he said it demonstrates how the audience was on three sides of the actors, who performed on a stage that thrusted out into the theatre. Watching a Shakespeare plays was a participative experience and the audience would call out, mocking, berating, agreeing and reacting with the players. Nowadays a theatre audience sits quietly and politely applauds at the end but in Shakespeare’s day they would answer out loud to an actor who might ask a question in their soliloquy. Modern day actors at The Globe are trained to throw their questions out into the crowd and fully expect there to be interaction. He cited an occasion when he watched Henry V, where the audience cheered the English monarch and booed the French King.
The second misconception about Shakespeare, according to Professor Crystal, is that the language is really difficult. He said that there are roughly 900,000 words used in Shakespeare’s 39 plays plus the poems but only 5% of these are different from modern English. There were no dictionaries in Shakespeare’s day and sometimes there was a need to invent new words. Shakespeare knew that most of the people watching his work were not intellectuals so did not pepper his plays with arcane and highbrow language. If he did use obscure language, he would often provide understanding by explaining his meaning again in the next line. He did invent 1000 new words, often for dramatic purposes, sometimes to maintain rhythm or the iambic pentameter; unlike today nobody criticised you for introducing new words. Three hundred new words used the prefix “un-“, an example being when Lady MacBeth says “unsex me”, which meant change my sex. The professor did concede that we do need to sometimes work on understanding words that no longer exist such as “arras” or “incarnadine” which can help unravel the meaning of the play. It is also important to consider that some words did have different meanings in Shakespeare’s day, for instance “naughty” used to mean “really evil”; the professor said that studying the works of Shakespeare brings together language and literature.
The audience comprised students from across Bolton, as well as parents and teachers – some of who were slightly star-struck by the Professor, having read many of his books during the course of their lives. David Crystal is a renowned academic and author. He published the first of his 100 or so books in 1964, and become known chiefly for his research work in English language studies, in such fields as intonation and stylistics, and in the application of linguistics to religious, educational and clinical contexts, notably in the development of a range of linguistic profiling techniques for diagnostic and therapeutic purposes. He has written many books on the language of Shakespeare; this year he has already published The Oxford Illustrated Shakespeare Dictionary and The Disappearing Dictionary: a Treasury of Lost English Dialect Words. He held a chair at the University of Reading for 10 years, and is now Honorary Professor of Linguistics at the University of Wales, Bangor. He has been a consultant, contributor and presenter on several radio and television programmes and series.